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The End of the River

The End of the River(1947)

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teaser The End of the River (1947)

Typical of the casting practices of 50+ years ago, the Indian-born actor Sabu was often called upon to play a wide range of "exotics" beyond his own ethnicity, including Arabs, Latinos, and in the case of The End of the River (1947), an Amazonian native tribesman. In this story, told in flashback, he is cast as Manoel, betrayed by a treacherous tribal chieftain and exiled from his village. Forced to survive in the white man's world, he encounters numerous difficulties with employers, labor organizers, and the authorities. Eventually he settles down with an Indian girl, Teresa, in an ocean port, but when he kills a man in a brawl, he is put on trial for his life, his story revealed in flashbacks illustrating the central theme that he is merely a "twig tossed down the river," buffeted by forces he cannot control and little understands.

The film was produced by the acclaimed British producer-writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Although it falls between two of their most famous and praised films, Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948), it remains one of their least known efforts. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that here they served only as producers, leaving the directorial chores to Derek Twist, the editor of their hit from a decade earlier, The Edge of the World (1937), one of several Powell-Pressburger films in which the natural environment plays a vital part in the story. The team had long been grateful to Twist for saving that picture by editing nearly four hours of footage down to about 80 minutes for its release. Twist had gone into the military during World War II but kept in touch with Powell and Pressburger. After the war, he came to them with the book Death of a Common Man by Desmond Holdridge, eager to make a film out of its colorful but tragic plot, and they repaid his earlier service to them by giving him his first opportunity as director.

Twist had come across Holdridge's novel more or less by accident. Bed-ridden with an illness as a child, he spent his hours reading crime fiction his nanny fetched for him from the local library. Having exhausted the whodunit shelves, she found the novel in another section and thought its title sounded within the realm of Twist's interests. Powell didn't find it to be particularly fresh and exciting but was intrigued enough by the story's South American setting to pass it on to Pressburger, who took on script supervision duties. Twist went to Brazil to scout locations and came back very enthusiastic about the project. Having just worked with Sabu in the Himalayan-set Black Narcissus, the producers thought he would be perfect for the lead in what was then being prepared under the working title "Green Days and Blue Days" (after a quote from a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson). A number of actors who regularly worked on their pictures were also cast, notably Esmond Knight.

Frequent Powell-Pressburger camera operator Christopher Challis was assigned to the production as associate director and given his first credit as cinematographer, shooting in black and white on location in Brazil over the course of three months under often difficult circumstances. Two weeks of that were spent with the Arekuna Indians in the remote savannah land near the country's northern border, an area that had only recently been adequately charted. The crew also took a 1,000-mile trip by river steamer down the Amazon from Manaos to the port city of Belem de Para. Among the authentic scenes they captured were shots of the annual festival of the Virgin of Nazareth, Brazil's largest religious festival, held in Belem every October.

Another bit of authenticity was achieved with the casting of Brazilian star Bibi Ferreira as Teresa. The daughter of a renowned actor and a dancer, Ferreira had made her performing debut as a small child; although still only 25 at the time of this film's production, she was already a star in her own right at home. She has since become one of the country's most famous and respected artists, making a name for herself as actor, singer, director, and composer. Many of the indigenous characters of the early scenes were played by actual Arekuna and Patamonas tribes people.

In spite of all the hard work and attention to detail, The End of the River was not a success, either critically or commercially, and Powell later wrote that he and Pressburger should have talked the inexperienced Twist out of making it. He was particularly critical of Twist's handling of the location work, which in Powell's opinion was dull and uninspired, especially compared to the stunning, evocative look of Black Narcissus, a film that displays a far richer sense of place and feeling for the natural environment despite its being shot entirely in the studio. "He was a realist," Powell said of Twist, "but for him realism was ugly, not beautiful."

One interesting bit of trivia related to this film: Thorn, the German Shepherd who leads the gold-prospectors to the exhausted Manoel, was the recipient of a Dickin Medal, also known as the Animal Victoria Cross, instituted in 1943 to honor animals that distinguished themselves in war service. Thorn received the award for civil defense work carried out after a V2 rocket attack. The dog was also used for mine detecting and later in police work.

Director: Derek Twist
Producers: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Wolfgang Wilhelm, based on the novel Death of a Common Man by Desmond Holdridge
Cinematography: Christopher Challis
Editing: Brereton Porter
Art Direction: Fred Pusey
Original Music: Lambert Williamson
Cast: Sabu (Manoel), Bibi Ferreira (Teresa), Esmond Knight (Dantos), Antoinette Cellier (Conceicao), Torin Thatcher (Lisboa), Maurice Denham (Defending Counsel).

by Rob Nixon

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